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FeaturedTags The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner

If you’re asking how lawyers remain relevant and impactful in the modern knowledge economy, you’re not alone. Clients also want to know, because access to information is not enough.

As one article put it, “a lawyer who doesn’t speak the language of your business” is a clear red flag. Clients’ desired competencies go beyond technical skills and into consultative ones, and we’ve had mixed results developing those skills.


The True Counselor

When the Kauffman Foundation—a non-profit that supports entrepreneurial activities in Kansas City—reached out to UMKC law professor Tony Luppino, they wanted to know how law schools were preparing attorneys to adapt to this expansive knowledge environment. How do we train future lawyers to “speak the language” of their clients’ businesses?

Tony used a three-tier model to describe the kinds of lawyers entrepreneurial clients need:

  1. The “No” Lawyers are naysayers who put roadblocks in the way of entrepreneurial activity, always seeing the negative and no path forward;
  2. The Solutions Lawyers are technicians who know how to find new paths for entrepreneurs to accomplish their tactical aims; and
  3. The True Counselors are advisors who “know the law but have also developed significant business savvy and creativity” and advise clients with an understanding of the bigger picture.

As Tony pointed out in his report to the Kauffman Foundation, lawyers are generally better at saying no and finding solutions than they are at being True Counselors. Yet if you look at data about client expectations, they cite our lack of counselor skills as a major complaint.

If you feel you have not learned those True Counselor skills, or want to know how to use modern technology to better leverage your skills, we want to help.

In the following chapters, we’ll give you some context. We’ll talk about best practices for using knowledge in your latest transaction, how lawyers have managed knowledge in the past, and how we might do that better.

We’ll use the example of a new associate in your firm to make the examples real, and we’ll talk to Law Insider users to get a sense of how they’re adapting.

In the end, we’ll show you that available knowledge is not cheapened, it is amplified. You can have a greater impact on your clients’ lives and decisions when you modernize your knowledge practice.


Your New Client Has a Request

To begin, let’s get transactional.

Imagine that a new client comes through the door and asks for your expertise.

The client’s request sounds simple enough. Maybe she wants to license some intellectual property, enter into a consulting arrangement, or begin a joint venture. She wants to know whether the new move is a good one in the current environment. Your lawyer’s brain turns on, debating whether to tell this client “no” or to find a viable solution. You’re mastering the first two lawyer types in Tony Luppino’s taxonomy, and your client is excited to see your work.

So how might you modernize this process? First, focus on efficient access to information. Modern knowledge management tools make that possible, and doing this well empowers the client.

If you can get the client good answers quickly, you’ll make her decision easier. Every transaction client cares about return on investment (or ROI) when planning the next move, and tech-enabled efficiency lowers your client’s cost of doing business.

That is, if you’re efficiently doing the right thing.


The Technology Trap

Patrick DiDomenico is Chief Innovation Officer at Jackson Lewis in Austin, Texas. From his perspective, technology tools can do a lot to foster both efficiency and accuracy in a lawyer’s work. But, as he makes clear, technology can’t hide a bad method.

“Technology is not a cure-all,” Patrick said in an interview. “When you apply it to a bad process, you just get a bad outcome faster.”

Patrick’s background is in knowledge management, a discipline we’ll dig into later. As he explained to me, knowledge management’s function is to connect practitioners to people and knowledge. There’s an efficiency to “knowing what you know,” an ideal often cited in his field.

“We use things like databases, document management systems, and intranets to put information assets into the hands of people who need them.”

These technology tools allow lawyers to efficiently locate the information that will help their clients make ROI-driven decisions. Rather than rely on their own limited experience, these modern practitioners use whatever relevant data they can to inform their advice. This requires a level of technical ability, but primarily a culture that seeks known knowns.


What Computers Can Add

In future chapters, we’ll talk about how technologies like Law Insider allow you to increase efficiency in your practice. Research tools give you access to a wide web of knowledge, held in the brains and files of countless attorneys outside the walls of your office. Without the internet and database technology, we’d never be able to navigate the vast sea of information David Weinberger called Too Big to Know.

This is because computers do something really well that we do not: they can hold and sort massive reams of data in milliseconds. Modern knowledge practitioners weigh “no” against possible solutions using data tools to spot patterns and discover insights. They do not rely on the limited data set stored in their heads, but they use their experience to identify a starting line.

As each new transaction shows, knowing where to begin your search is a clear sign of expertise for the modern knowledge practitioner. But it’s not enough. Your client needs you to come up with either a “no” or a solution, and that means knowing when to stop your knowledge work. How do you know when you are done?

Returning to David Weinberger’s book, he argued that the historical function of an expert was to define when the answer to any question was “done.” That is, since the expert held the relevant human-brain-sized chunk of knowledge in his head, any answer beyond the boundaries of his mind was irrelevant. The expert’s brain defined the limit. It was a false but useful end to any inquiry.

In a similar way, Weinberger said that books later set limits. Within the finite pages of a bound book, we knew where relevant knowledge ended: at the edges of the page. Beyond that, information wasn’t relevant.

That’s not so easy anymore.


The Definition of Done

I asked Robin Schard, Associate Director of the Law Library at the University of Miami School of Law, how she teaches her students to stop a search into the vast web of captured knowledge. As a family law practitioner before her time in the library, she knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by masses of information.

Now she teaches her students how to not feel overwhelmed.

When students begin their search, she told me, they are casting a line into an endless sea. They can’t do legal research the way they use Google, she explained. They must reach past the first page of results. But she teaches them not only to thoroughly set the bait but also to know when to pull their line and call the search done.

“When you start to see the same answers over and over again, whether in cases or in contracts, you know you’re done.” For Robin, pattern-matching eventually comes with diminishing returns.

In that sense, and as we’ll explore later, the job of a modern knowledge practitioner is two-fold: to know where to start a search for similar situations, and then to find patterns in the results. Technology tools help with that and you should use them where you can. They drive the efficiency that clients expect in finding the solutions they want.

As a modern knowledge practitioner, you have principles to apply to your latest transaction:

  • Seek efficiency, using tools that help you gather and sort through massive sets of potentially relevant information;
  • Know where to start your investigation and, through smart pattern-matching, where to end it; and
  • Recognize that these skills are fundamental to the first two competencies in Tony Luppino’s taxonomy: the “No” Lawyer and the Solutions Lawyer.

As Luppino’s research shows, clients often want to be told “no” or given a solution. These are important deliverables. But the professor also identified a higher use of knowledge in today’s ever-changing context—one he said we aren’t delivering well.

Before we get to the method of the True Counselor, let’s look to the past for why we interact with information the way we do. Understanding that older method might clear a path to more modern solutions.


Read the next article in the series:
The Legal Knowledge of Business

All articles in the series:
The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner

  1. The Cheapening of Knowledge
  2. Your Latest Transaction
  3. The Legal Knowledge Business
  4. Knowledge Management
  5. Making Experts Out of Employees
  6. What Clients Want
  7. The Advisor’s Burden
  8. The Modern Knowledge Firm



Mike Whelan
Mike Whelan
CEO @Lawyer Forward

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